Surviving in Spirit: A Memoir about Sisterhood and Addiction

Surviving in Spirit: A Memoir about Sisterhood and Addiction

What prompts a young woman to abandon the safe bounds of convention for the unknown? At first, all Mélanie Berliet understood was that she’d lost her sense of what ‘supposed to’ meant. And that her older sister Céline was sick.

While it’s tough to understand what leads a person into addiction–to witness someone you love kind-of kill herself–the truth is that you can learn from it. By the time Céline died at age 30, she was Kermit The Frog green and she vomited blood more frequently than she was able to eat. In less than a decade, she had gone from summa cum laude Columbia graduate to NYU PhD student to unemployed, rambling, stumbling drunk saddled with a cirrhotic liver beyond repair. By the time Céline died, her younger sister Mélanie was no longer a Miss Goody Two Shoes from a waspy Connecticut suburb trotting down the sensible path. She was an adult who had abandoned a secure job on Wall Street to establish a career as a writer committed to exploring fascinating subcultures.

As Céline’s illness escalated, you see, a basic lesson crept up on Mélanie: Life is beautifully short, and fragile as hell. Life happens. Gradually, Mélanie stopped agonizing over what she was supposed to do/think/know/read/listen to/watch/feel, or who she was supposed to be/befriend/love/like/learn from. So she pitched projects that sounded crazy and/or dangerous to most, but which gave her a thrill and helped her establish a career as an immersive journalist. She grew some balls, so to speak, after freeing herself from caring about what others might think.
The devastating beauty of what happened to Céline forced Mélanie to question who she is. However unwittingly, in dying, Céline empowered her younger sister to take risks–to live. This is their story.

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About The Writer

Mélanie Berliet has written for New York, Elle, Vanity Fair, The Atlantic, New York Observer, Esquire, and McSweeney’s, among other publications. She also creates and produces content for television and the web. Her likes include knee high tube socks, acrostic poetry, her brother, and the color navy blue.

— Read more about Mélanie Berliet

An Excerpt

As the second child, I grew up witnessing my older sister’s firsts with a mix of jealousy, awe, and irritation. Céline was the first to ride her bike to school, the first to babysit, the first to squander her earnings on Hostess cupcakes behind Mom and Dad’s backs, the first to travel alone, the first to drive, and the first to go away to college. It never occurred to me that my “first envy” could expire.

But throughout our twenties, as Céline’s alcoholism advanced, she seemed to blossom more like a self cannibalizing Venus Flytrap than the dignified orchid I once admired. I watched as my older sister was the first to get wasted before breakfast, to go broke, to collapse in public, to steal, to enter rehab, to get an abortion, and to date a certified crackhead. Though I grew somewhat numb to Céline’s shocking behavior over time, nothing could prepare me for her very last first: Dying.
Céline’s last Christmas. Levity courtesy of awesome hat.
By the time Céline died, she was Kermit The Frog green and she vomited blood more frequently than she was able to eat. My older sister had gone from summa cum laude Columbia graduate to NYU PhD student to unemployed, rambling, stumbling drunk who told gratuitous lies, neglected to pay rent, and collected inexplicably icky bruises.

By the time Céline died, I was no longer a Miss Goody Two Shoes from a waspy Connecticut suburb trotting down the Sensible Path. I was an adult whose career (and love life) involved testing the waters of the socially unconventional, and, at times, unacceptable.

How exactly did this happen? And how are our stories intertwined?

Céline holds my bald ass in the 70s-era chair I will break years later.
Before I became a writer, I was a bond trader—one secure rung on an elite investment bank’s proverbial corporate ladder, happily on track to make shitloads of money like I’d always planned. By the time I was a six-figure salaried 23-year-old, however, a basic, unwelcome lesson had crept up on me: No amount of money can buy happiness, and no pair of overpriced stilettos can make this gal enjoy trading bonds. Two meltdowns and a bottle of tequila later, I quit Wall Street in pursuit of something else.

What leads a young woman to abandon the safe bounds of convention—to gamble a stable livelihood couched in health insurance, regular paychecks, Barney’s shopping excursions and expensable Nobu dinners—for the unknown?
At first, all I understood was that I’d lost my sense of what ‘supposed to’ meant. And that my sister was sick.

Though I can’t credit Céline’s alcoholism completely for inspiring me to leave Wall Street in search of some way to make a living beyond glorified gambling and the glorious paycheck that went with it, it seems more than coincidental that her illness took root around the same time, in the early aughts.

As Céline’s illness escalated, I flailed about trying to establish a career and an existence that made some kind of sense. I had no plan to speak of—only a recently realized passion for reading and writing, and a nagging sense that it was foolish to agonize over what I was supposed to do/think/know/read/listen to/watch/feel, or who I was supposed to be/befriend/love/like/learn from. The harsh reality that my sister of all people had a major problem forced me to question why the fuck ‘supposed to’ mattered so damn much. So in my desperate search for self, I pitched projects that sounded crazy and/or dangerous to most, but which gave me a thrill and enabled me to establish a career as an immersive journalist. I grew some balls, so to speak, as I stopped giving a shit about what others might think.

Gradually, you see, another basic lesson was creeping up on me: Life is beautifully short, and fragile as fuck. Life happens. And while it’s tough to understand what leads a person into addiction—to witness someone you love kind-of kill herself— the truth is that you can learn from it.

When I visited my sister at the hospital once late in her illness, she barely looked alive, saggy breasts peeking through a haphazardly tied gown. Céline had one request that day: a bottle of the spray-on dry shampoo Mom gets from relatives in France. On the brink of death, all she wanted was to clean her matted strands. This heartbreakingly simple wish wasn’t about appearances; it was about comfort. Moments like this thrust perspective upon me.

Since the day I was born I have been Céline’s sister, and my path—from square Wall-Streeter-with-a-grand-plan to carefree intrepid journo—is understandable only through the lens of our lovingly complicated relationship. The devastating beauty of what happened to Céline led me to question who I am and to figure things out for myself. However unwittingly, my sister empowered me to take risks, and to live.

Book Trailer

Praise

Inspired by her sister’s untimely death to buck convention and lead a full life, Mélanie’s story is uniquely tragic, but relatable to anyone familiar with life’s capacity to shock and the challenge of searching for self. This book will resonate with you long after you’ve finished it.

Meghan McCain

“Mélanie’s writing is honest and thought provoking, but also entertaining. Without a doubt, she keeps it interesting.”

Jared Cohen

“You should be very excited to read about Melanie’s adventures with addiction and married men since it’s probably the safest way to experience both.

Joel Stein
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